Richard II

The intricate windows of the Stained Glass Centre in St Martin-cum-Gregory in York witnessed a different historical scene on Wednesday night. Host to Bronzehead Theatre’s production of Shakespeare’s Richard II, the former parish church is an awe-inspiring setting, fitting perfectly with the new interpretation of the Bard’s history.

Mark Burghagen’s portrayal of this foolish monarch cannot be described as anything other than outstanding

Using the former church as a stage was indeed a brave move. Even for those religiously unaffiliated, the image of a brazen king imbued with self-importance, adorned with what almost appeared as a crown of thorns and raised in front of a wall etched with the ten commandments certainly sent shivers down the spine. Here, the play served to shamelessly fly in the face of the very first commandment (“You shall have no other gods before me” Exodus 20:3), portraying a king blind to the realities of his power and duties. Mark Burghagen’s portrayal of this foolish monarch cannot be described as anything other than outstanding. Opening as a childish, silly ruler, Burghagen makes the most of the audience sat opposite each other on either side of the long strip of grass making up the stage. He includes us as both his jury and his supporters when looking for more sycophants to boost his own ego. This clever – if sometimes a little overused – ploy served to underline the instability of Richard’s rule as, after all, these “supporters” would be leaving after the final bows. Unwittingly aided by the torrential downpour outside, Richard’s frequent presence in the sunny garden juxtaposed the turmoil of his politics, and a great roll of thunder during his trial of Bolingbroke and Mowbray both emphasised and made a mockery of the king’s power. Burghagen’s talent shone through most clearly, however, in his loss of the crown as we see Richard twisted into a cynical and sarcastic man, stripped bare of titles (and indeed some of his clothes). Here Burghagen really grows in his character – the prison soliloquy was indeed some of the best Shakespeare I have seen.

Amy Millns’ Bolingbroke rivalled Burghagen in both character and talent, arguably stole the first act of the show. A Shakespeare traditionalist at heart, I must admit my scepticism in the face of a female Bolingbroke. All doubts were dispersed however, in witnessing an exceptional performance and portrayal of Shakespeare – to the extent that I struggled to imagine the role played as excellently by a man, if at all. Millns’ greatest skill lies in the subtlety of her work, which comes only from the greatest understanding of the Bard’s complex scripts. Her height was also a valuable asset, adding to the imposing figure of Bolingbroke which often towered over the smaller Burghagen in confrontational scenes. Here, even Richard’s lofty ladder throne could not raise him above Bolingbroke’s striking stance. Richard’s attempts to raise himself higher on the platforms around the stage were reminiscent of a child on a climbing frame, and cleverly served to underline the incredible differences between the competing leaders.

Photography by Michael J. Oakes
Photography by Michael J. Oakes

Bronzehead’s production of Richard II is undoubtedly a well thought out interpretation, whose risks and alterations have paid off spectacularly

Unfortunately, whilst Mick Liversidge’s and Elizabeth Cooke’s performance in a variety of roles were tastefully done (Cooke’s Aumerle in the second act was particularly impressive), Richard Easterbrook and Geraldine Bell tended to let the performance down. Evident in noticeable stumbles, Easterbrook did not seem as comfortable in his role, and proved incapable of commanding the audience with his monologues in the same way as Burghagen and Millns, making it easy to become distracted by other antics on stage. Bell’s characters, on the other hand, often got too carried away, and the portrayal of the Duchess of York in particular was closer to a pantomime dame than a well-crafted Shakespearean character. Attempts at cheap laughs were frequently unsuccessful and served more to undermine the integrity of the show and the other actors than to add anything of merit. Most notably in the second act, the Duchess of York’s scene disrupted the fluidity and serious nature of the text, however was thankfully redeemed by Burghagen’s sensational prison scene.

Bronzehead’s production of Richard II is undoubtedly a well thought out interpretation, whose risks and alterations have paid off spectacularly, most particularly in its staging and unconventional casting. Although the quality lacks consistency at times, the play provides some instances of exceptional acting and is a treat for Shakespeare novices and experts alike.

Richard II is showing from the 8th-12th of July in York before touring to Richmond Friary Gardens, Helmsley Walled GardenThe Tudor GardenPontefract Castle and finally, Harrogate Valley Gardens from the 15th-19th of July. Tickets can be purchased here.